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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Cristyl Taylor: Better wages would be a boon to clients and caregivers

Cristyl Taylor

By Cristyl Taylor

I love watching someone meeting a goal, which is why I work as a direct support professional to provide care for those with intellectual and physical disabilities living in their own home. It’s a tough job that requires a lot of patience and because more than 99% of our clients rely on Medicaid, our wages have really fallen behind in my 10 years working in this field. Fortunately, our state Legislature has an opportunity to increase its Medicaid investment in supported living so that starting wages can catch up after years of falling behind. I hope that they recognize this year the importance of investing in this foundational model of long-term care in Washington.

I’ve lived in Spokane all my life. I am the proud mother of five children, two of whom are adopted and have autism. After first working in elder care, I became interested in mental health and how to best support those with intellectual and physical disabilities. In my work as a direct support professional, I provide care for two to four clients at any given time. The needs of each client are different, but generally I help my clients get dressed, bathe, cook, take their medications on the right schedule and go out into the world. This is a job that requires a lot of patience and compassion, but I love it.

In supported living, direct support professionals provide care for clients that are living in their own homes. We strive to provide consistency for our clients, especially because the needs and condition of each individual are unique. It can take some time to learn how best to communicate with someone who is nonverbal, for example. To someone on the outside, it may be hard to see past someone’s disability. But each client is an actual person and not just someone defined by one disability or another. One client I have supported for eight years speaks very rapidly and can be challenging to understand until you have spent time learning how he communicates. If you just met him, you may be frustrated at the onslaught of words and walk away remembering only the experience of someone shouting at you. But he is an individual with all of the same feelings and thoughts that any other person experiences in their life.

Unfortunately, the starting wage for direct support professionals is today lower than what fast food outlets pay their workers. It wasn’t always like this in our state – in 2008, direct support professionals earned 23.7% above minimum wage, but now we only make 5% above minimum wage. The difficulty of the work – combined with these low wages – has fueled an annual turnover rate of nearly 50%. The pandemic and the current hypercompetitive hiring economy has only made things worse. High turnover undermines the very consistency of care that we strive for with our clients. Whenever a new face is introduced to a client, both the client and the direct support professional need to learn from each other how to communicate with each other. And all of this learning happens while a client still needs to shower, eat, exercise, take medication, visit their doctor and go grocery shopping.

We cannot increase starting wages for direct support professionals without increasing our state’s investment in Medicaid because more than 99% of our clients rely on Medicaid. Today Washington is ranked 46th in the country when measuring the gap between a state’s minimum wage and the median wage for those in our field. This means that many direct support professionals work much more than 40 hours a week and often, hold down multiple jobs in order to make ends meet. This is incredibly stressful even in normal times. A higher starting wage of $18-20 per hour and an annual cost-of-living increase will help bring some stability to those working to provide foundational care. For me, it will mean I get to spend a little more time with my family. For my clients, it will mean more consistency in their level of care and understanding with their direct support professionals.

The biggest thing in my work with clients is to practice patience so that they can achieve their goals, no matter the challenge. It is a 24/7 job and I do it because I love it. It is past time, however, for our state to help our wages catch up so that we do not continue to lose workers to less stressful, higher paying jobs in almost any other field.

Cristyl Taylor has served as a direct support professional for 10 years in Spokane.